Unladylike Behaviors: The Evolution of Women in Comedy

by Daniela Canales

Stand-up comedy is a peculiar performance art form. In a room filled with people, the comedian is the only one facing the wrong way. They are also the only one not laughing. For normal people, this is a nightmare, not a career aspiration. This is not a career for the faint of heart, the weak-willed, or the overly sensitive. Comedians are not meant to be delicate; they cater to the grotesque, the crude, and the vulgar. This is one of the only jobs in the world where leaving table-manners at the door and speaking your mind is unapologetically encouraged. Historically, the field has been male-dominated, with few women given the opportunity to step on stage. Studies show that men are booked more often by producers to perform comedy routines than women (Levitt). However, the past decade has seen a truly unprecedented surge of female comedians. More and more women today have the courage to deliver funny monologues and hilarious anecdotes than ever before. From Ali Wong to Chelsea Peretti, the rise of funny females in the comedy industry cannot be ignored. When listening to these female comics, there are noticeable differences in the comedic styles that women choose to pursue. There is one feature in dozens of female comedy routines, however, that makes them distinctly different from their male peers: these women love talking about sex. 

Good sex. Bad sex. Sloppy sex. You name it, these female comedians are almost guaranteed to talk about it. But why? Why are female comics more likely to talk about something so taboo, something that is meant to be reserved for male locker rooms? Some argue that this “unladylike” behavior is inappropriate or that if they are relying on sex to get a laugh, they are not that funny. However, looking at the history and development of this industry, it should be no surprise that women are eager to give their two cents on sex during their routines. 

“Historians trace the origins of stand-up comedy to a very specific time and place: the variety, or burlesque shows, that flourished in New York City’s turn-of-the-century vaudeville theaters” (McGraw and Warner). They were widely known for their racy stripteases, dancing-girl performances, and later down the line for their energetic, fast-paced comedy routines. When looking at the outstanding lineup of today’s empowered female comedians, it is amazing to see how women have made it this far. As a gender, women have progressed from pursuing careers in the physical exploitation of the female body and moved on to promoting an appreciation of their wit and humor. However, this growth was by no means easy. Allowing women to pursue comedy was a slow and painful progress that is still in the works today. When considering the struggle that women have gone through in the past, more light is shed on how this surge of modern comics and their famously risque routines came into being. Looking at more modern movements, the development of this issue can be traced to the third wave of feminism. 

The third wave of feminism began in the mid-1990s and was distinguished by “post-colonial” and “post-modern” thinking (Rampton). With this newfound philosophical position, many constructs were essentially destabilized, including the notions of “universal womanhood, body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity,” (Rampton). An aspect of third wave feminism that “mystified the mothers of the earlier feminist movement” was the readoption by young feminists of the “lip-stick, high-heels, and cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines” that the first two phases of the movement identified with male oppression (Rampton). Pinkfloor, a Danish company from this era, perfectly encapsulated the driving force of this movement when they expressed that “it’s possible to have a push-up bra and a brain at the same time” (Rampton). Since the 90s, it has become evident that feminine figures are not as easy to keep quiet as when stand-up comedy first came into play. In 2019, not only are women proudly making solid careers in the world of comedy, they are becoming more and more open about talking about extremely personal issues that involve womanhood—a significant part of which is rooted in sexuality. Through this, the ups and downs of sex have now become a prominent theme seen in the work of many stand-up comedians. 

One of the main reasons women are so open to talking about sex is a result of a female upbringing. Women are taught their whole lives that what they have to offer is only valuable if it comes wrapped in a package that is attractive and inviting. Despite the progress that social feminism has played, women are not treated as equals to men. What a man does may be considered normal, even impressive, to some people. However, oftentimes, when a woman acts in a similar way, it is seen with a negative connotation. At work, some women are considered “strong leaders” and others “power crazy.” In romantic relationships, there are women who “helped make me a better man” and “nags.” In school, there are women who are “smart” and then there are “know-it-alls.” The deciding factor that allows women to be seen in a more flattering light is the potential for sex: society views women as sexual objects by nature, and therefore (according to societal standards), sexual appeal plays a significant part in their value as people. Sex has simply worked for women in the past. When there is a possibility of (or even slight mention) of the act, women are generally received more positively by their romantic partners, friendly strangers, or in the case of stand-up comedy, the audience. For this reason, it is only logical for women to talk about it in their comedy routines. In contrast, men have not had to use sex as a means of gaining the audience’s favor in the past. Generally, the comedy routines presented by males include a much wider variety of topics. In all three of John Mulaney’s Netflix comedy specials, for example, there is no topic of a sexual nature mentioned. However, when looking at the lineup of female comedians’ specials, it’s hard to find one that does not include sex. 

With this, many female comedians have taken the liberty of addressing important issues regarding sexuality, sexual activity, and sexual violence through comedy. Women, since they are seen as more innocent and sinless than men, have the ability to make these kinds of jokes without coming off as cruel, violent, or entitled. Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, Gina Barreca and many others have contributed to the world of comedy in the past through this very topic. Often, it is the sole focus of their performances. In one of Amy Schumer’s stand-up specials, aptly titled Mostly Sex Stuff, Schumer breaks the ice with her audience by diving straight into the nasty, gritty, and taboo, drawing attention to the humor in which a woman can be so overtly sexual rather than passive. Her opening address to the audience begins with her talking about how she “finally had sex with her high school crush.” After jokingly revealing that “the poor kid now wants her to go to his graduation,” implying that the “crush” is still in high school, she is met with a roar of laughter from the audience. Though this anecdote was clearly meant as a joke, it would be completely different if the speaker was male. Being female, in this case at least, allows one to speak as they please with limited consequences. Comedians have learned that the audience will not perceive a woman telling a joke on stage to be a threat, sparking a trend that has been followed by dozens of women in the industry. In Nikki Glaser’s performance on comedy central, she talks about sex in a multitude of ways. She discusses the idea of what women “really want in bed,” period sex, and in a vulgar monologue, closes with a story about how she uses “phone sex to talk down her Verizon bill.” In this case, Glaser is able to make jokes about sex in a way that men simply, by societal standards, cannot. Though the act she is referring to is morally wrong and illegal, the audience doesn’t mind it simply because her femininity won’t condemn her. In fact, her set allows for a stronger connection between the comedian and her audience by diving into things that we typically consider to be too personal for daily conversation. This can be traced back to a psychological phenomenon found in Timothy Jay’s study of the “taboo” language people use every day (Jay 1). When we use this essentially dirty language, people become more vulnerable to scrutiny and ridicule if the one who says it is closely tied to the issue at hand (Jay 8). In the case of stand-up comedy, women have the freedom to make more jokes about sex since, historically, they were more sexually oppressed than men. 

When considering how female comics play into feminism as a whole, it almost seems ridiculous that jokes have such a high impact on how women are seen by our society. However, it is important to consider, especially in the United States, that the most substantial social movements are made by those with a platform rather than a group marching to their town hall with picket signs. Female comics have been using their stage as a platform to speak to the masses on key feminist issues. Even when they speak about sex, they are advocating for something much greater. When Taylor Tomlinson jokingly says, “In bed, I am like a wild animal: way more afraid of you than you are of me,” she is speaking to the harsh and violent culture of our society that prompts women to be fearful of sexual predators daily (Comedy Central Stand-Up). When she talks about how “getting a guy you meet on a dating app to wear a condom is like getting a five-year-old to put a jacket over his Halloween costume,” Tomlinson is shedding light on some of the simple, daily struggles that women should not tolerate in today’s dating culture (Comedy Central Stand-Up). Monologues like hers give audiences an insight as to what life is like for a woman in the modern world: potentially dangerous and disadvantageous. Though these comedic lines are just jokes, they are coming from a long, arduous fight that is productive to feminist ideals. 

In contrast, it is important to note that some argue that when women talk about sex so openly, they are essentially overly-sexualizing themselves, making it counter-productive to modern feminism. While it is understandable to come to this conclusion, the argument itself fails to consider the underlying meaning behind the jokes. Why would a woman make a joke about her sexuality if it was only going to objectify her? Just as third wave feminism prompted women to take on the comedic stage, it also gave them the proper footing they needed to speak to truly pressing issues in an unbalanced world. If one considers the real reason women share these dirty jokes to anecdotes, it is evident that they are speaking from a place of contempt for societal norms rather than self-deprecation.

Stand-up comedy was never meant to be a career for the weak. That is why women are taking it over. Today, women have the ability to speak their minds as they please, and audiences around the world are thrilled. Talking about sex gives women a platform that they have never had before. It may not be the classiest or most lady-like way to behave on stage, but in the 21st century, it is time to accept women as they are, give them the freedom to say what they want, and open the dialogue for issues once considered to be “too risque” for the stage. Thanks to the strong, original, and incredibly diverse lineup of women in the world of comedy, the world can now enjoy a wide array of routines that history simply wouldn’t accept. For the people who are still holding on to their antiquated convictions on what women should be or how they should behave, take a lesson from one of Amy Glaser’s hilarious stand-up sets: “shut up and get over it” (Smythe). 

Works Cited 

Jay, Timothy. “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 4, no. 2, 2009, pp. 153–161. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40212309.

McGraw, Peter, and Joel Warner. “Was Stand-Up Comedy Invented by a Black Vaudevillian?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 2 Apr. 2014, https://slate.com/culture/2014/04/who-invented-stand-up-the-origins-of-a-peculiarly-american-form-of-comedy.html.

Rampton, Martha. “Four Waves of Feminism.” Pacific University, 21 Nov. 2019, https://www.pacificu.edu/magazine/four-waves-feminism.

Schumer, Amy, director. Mostly Sex Stuff. Comedy Central, http://www.cc.com/episodes/in3rtx/stand-up-specials-amy-schumer–mostly-sex-stuff-season-1-ep-101.

Smyth, Cassie. “27 Times British Female Comedians Proved They Were Funnier Than Pretty Much Anyone Else.” BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed, 20 Apr. 2018, https://www.buzzfeed.com/cassiesmyth/xx-times-british-female-comedians-made-us-belly-la.

“Trying to Get Guys from Dating Apps to Put on Condoms.” YouTube, uploaded by Comedy Central Stand-Up, 9 June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f82CYDZyTeU&list=RDEQdeHNWf-0I&index=9